Eating is one of those activities that can latch into your memory like a goathead thorn on a bicycle tire. I can remember meals and occasions from when I was a kid with great clarity, so much so that at times, I think Vonnegut was more right than he knew. Partly, of course, this has to do with special occasions celebrated with food, especially dining out.
Yet my memories aren’t limited to those. I think it may have to do with how going to a restaurant to eat, rather than eating at home, interacts with the five senses: the taste and smell and texture of the food, naturally, but also the atmosphere, what it looks like, sounds like. Sort of like how a campfire is profound in some way because all five senses are affected meaningfully: its light fighting back foreboding shadows, the logs crackling and shifting, its heat warming you, the smell and taste suffusing your attention.
If I close my eyes I am instantly transported to a pizza palace in the 1970s, done up in overwrought Victoriana, shadowy nooks and mysterious crannies, dark velvet and brass in low lighting, arcade games, a tiny movie theater showing classic films, pizza buffets.
Or I fly to the rough-hewn barbecue place we discovered accidentally on a road trip when I was young and returned to often over the years, where the corn on the cob was grilled and had nails sticking in the ends as holders, where the brisket would fall apart in your mouth amid an explosion of tangy sauce.
Traveling through time closer to the present, the magic of childhood is replaced perhaps by more concrete flashes, “I did this then, there, and with those people.” Even still, there is a magic to memory, to dancing through time loosely.
I begin to feel as the years go by that it isn’t enough just to consume, to stuff my face as quickly and easily as possible. That food made well is its own creative reward. The utilitarian need is important (can’t live without food), but utility only goes so far in life.
Life becomes filled with campfires of family and friendship, profound and meaningful, enhanced by food, whether prepared well at home or well-prepared elsewhere. “My favorite place to eat” is something of a confounding question and maybe even meaningless in the context of memory. Of memorial.
But I will pick one restaurant, one locus of memory.
I can time-travel there to see my family after a particularly long plane ride, enjoying tastes of home after weeks away. I can taste my now-favorite pastrami on rye with hot mustard, the first time I ate it there. I can smell whiffs of a bowl of mishmosh hitting the table. I can hear my buddy Tom and I having the conversation from which Four Corners sprang.
Canter’s Deli on Fairfax has been around since 1924 and is open 24 hours. These two items should make it sufficiently attractive, never mind the fact that the food is almost always outstanding (unlike other less consistent older places I could mention). And who can argue with its menu?
The other night on TV, I came across comedians apparently taping a show at the restaurant with the really peculiar purpose of rating the top 100 stand-up comedians. Now that’s odd.
Finding yourself in a place with a long history, re-experiencing moments from your own history, eating food amid ghosts and shades and floating apparitions of celebrities and paupers, friends and strangers, sitting under lighting panels with strangely photo-realistic tree branches, crunching bagel chips dipped in your soup, or arguing over the last pickle. These are reasons enough for stops in your travels through time and space.
[Special thanks to Tom Bridge for permission to use these pictures.]